Warren Spahn’s Prime

Hall of Fame pitcher Warren Spahn was born 82 years ago this week, on April 23, 1921. In January, Joe Posnanski wrote in a post about the greatest pitchers of all time that "Warren Spahn sustained a long career, but did not have the dominant peak." That characterization surprised me, so I now present Warren Spahn's Hall of Fame prime.

I suppose "dominant peak" is relative; it's true that Spahn never had a season like Bob Gibson in '68. But Spahn nonetheless had a long, deeply impressive prime. He led the National League in wins eight times, most of any pitcher since World War II. I know wins are an overrated statistic, but can you really lead your league in wins eight times without a dominant peak? Spahn led the NL in complete games nine times. He led in innings, shutouts, strikeouts, and WHIP four times each. He led in ERA three times and ranked in the top five six other times.

According to Bill James' Black Ink calculation (leading the league in major statistics), Spahn ranks fourth among pitchers, trailing only Walter Johnson, Grover Cleveland Alexander, and Lefty Grove. He's tops among post-war pitchers. In Gray Ink (top-10), he's third, behind Cy Young and Johnson, and far ahead of sixth-place Greg Maddux among post-war pitchers. Can someone who so often led his league statistically really have a non-dominant peak, a prime that rates unimpressively against his peers?

Posnanski used Wins Above Replacement (as calculated at Baseball Reference) to measure dominance, and it is true that all-time WAR does not show Spahn as a top-10 pitcher. But most analysts, including Posnanski, acknowledge that WAR has limitations and that it is not equally fair to all players. I'm not trying to pick on Posnanski or what he wrote, because his phrase was just one of those little things that leapt out at me: a jumping-off point.

According to rWAR, Spahn had 10 5-win seasons, the sabermetric standard for an all-star season. But those 10 seasons don't include 1957 (when Spahn won the MLB-wide Cy Young) or two seasons ('58 and '61) when he led the NL in both wins and WHIP. I have a lot of respect for sabermetricians, but I think most would admit that their evaluation of pitchers and fielders hasn't caught up to statistical analysis of batters. Baseball Reference has Spahn at 4.1 WAR in 1961, when he led the NL in wins, ERA, WHIP, complete games, and shutouts. I'm skeptical that you could replace Spahn with a free agent or minor league prospect and only lose four games in the bargain*. You find the same thing in other years, and I'm convinced that WAR underrates Spahn. Even so, he ranked among MLB's top 10 pitchers in rWAR 11 times.

* Since this post was inspired by Joe Posnanski, I'm going to borrow his "Posterisk" format. In 1961, the Braves went 39-24 (.619) when either Spahn or Lew Burdette got the decision, compared to 44-47 (.484) in their other games. Spahn's ERA (3.02) was almost a full run better than Burdette's (4.00). This was not a great team, with Spahn along for the ride. It was a great team when Spahn pitched, with everyone else along for the ride.

Spahn threw four shutouts in '61. One was a blowout (8-0), and one a comfortable win (4-0), but the others were both 1-0, with Spahn allowing a combined three hits (all singles) in the two games. Beyond the shutouts, that year Spahn won four complete games 2-1. He won 3-1, won 3-2 in extra innings. It was an exceptional year, and it earned Spahn the most Cy Young votes of any pitcher in the NL. According to WAR, that was Spahn's 12th-best season. Can you imagine what his actual prime was like?

Posnanski used a seven-year standard — any seven years, not necessarily consecutive — to determine a pitcher's prime, so I'll do the same, though seven years seems long. Reasonable people might disagree about which seasons constitute Spahn's prime, but 1947-53 produces his top consecutive-season WAR total. From 1947-53, Spahn led the major leagues in wins, ERA, strikeouts, innings, complete games, shutouts, and WAR (rWAR and fWAR). Even with good defensive play from his teammates, that's dominant.

Of course, the thing about Spahn's career is that you could jump way ahead — say, 1957-63, a decade later — and he'd still look great. During those seven seasons, Spahn led the majors in wins by about four per year, his 147 far outpacing Whitey Ford (119) and Don Drysdale (118). Spahn also led in innings and led in complete games by about 50% (145; Drysdale and Bob Friend tied for second with 91). He led the majors in WHIP, and led the NL in ERA (ahead of both Drysdale and Koufax). This is for the seven years a decade after his prime, and he's still (at least arguably) the most dominant pitcher in baseball. If you really pieced together Spahn's seven best seasons, you could come up with dozens of reasonable combinations.

I've quoted wins a lot, and I'm sure most readers recognize the weaknesses of that statistic, in particular that baseball is a team sport; fielding and run support matter. Spahn had good teammates. He played with Hank Aaron and Eddie Mathews in their primes. But the biggest factor in whether or not the Braves won was whether or not Spahn was on the mound. For the seasons in which Spahn won the most games — going just by wins, in his seven best years he was 153-70 (.686) — the Braves went 437-426 (.506) in all other games, 180 points lower. Put Aaron and Mathews on the field with Johnny Sain or Gene Conley, and the Braves were a .500 team.

I've used mostly gross numbers because I don't feel that efficiency stats by themselves do Spahn justice. He was a legendary workhorse, who won more games than any pitcher since integration and pitched more innings than any but Nolan Ryan. Just as you don't expect starters to match a closer's numbers, you can't expect someone who leads the league in complete games every year to have the same ERA or K/9 as a pitcher who throws six or seven innings and then hits the showers.

But it's not just stats that make the case for Spahn's greatness; he rates just as well when you look at contemporary opinion: how was he rated against his peers? The Cy Young Award originated in 1956, when Spahn was 35. Despite that, and despite that the award was for both major leagues, Spahn placed top three in Cy Young voting five of the first six years the award was given. In his late 30s and early 40s, beyond his prime, Spahn was still considered one of the three best pitchers in the majors.

But since the Cy Young Award doesn't span his career, and misses his best years, maybe instead we could look at MVP voting? Spahn was the top pitcher in NL MVP voting four times, and top-three a total of seven times. That's a pretty nice seven-year standard: every season as one of the top three pitchers in the league.

I get that Posnanski was comparing Spahn to Roger Clemens, Lefty Grove, Walter Johnson, Greg Maddux, and Tom Seaver. Using that standard, I suppose he didn't have an exceptional prime. But even compared to a "normal" Hall of Famer, Spahn was among the most dominant pitchers in history.

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